ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 46

To win a cup

By Harry Jayachandra

Anton Benedict - Pic by J. Weerasekera

Back in the mid 1980’s Sri Lankan Sevens Rugby was almost at its peak. Led by Hisham Abdeen the national team won the Bowl Trophy at the Hong Kong Sevens, and despite being the runners up they somehow managed to win at least one match. In addition, they pushed their more fancied opponents to the very limit. There was a palpable sense of expectation every time the team left for a sevens tournament. Unfortunately those days are long gone.

In order to find out what went wrong and the measures needed to remedy the situation, The Sunday Times spoke to legendary former President of Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union (SLRFU) - ex player, national coach, chairman of selectors, Anton Benedict.
A hardcore Havelocks man, Benedict is the General Manager of CR and FC. He reflectively pointed to the ground and said: “This is one aspect I love about my job. I get to see this ground every day that I come to work.”

Beneath his slightly aloof exterior lies a man who is still as passionate about the game as he was when he was player. Benedict embodies what any true follower/administrator would aspire to be. He calls it down the middle and will not compromise his morals or ethics no matter what the cost.

When asked as to why Sri Lankan sevens rugby was not making the grade he said “let me first state that you cannot compare what happened in the 80’s to today’s game. Rugby has become professional and it is far more intense. I was once told by a person whose name I would rather not mention that if you do not have money, forget about rugby. I disagreed with this person at the time. But on reflection I had to admit he was right. If you take our league season, it is either one horse race or a two horse race. And why?Because it is all about the money. Go back 15 to 20 years ago and you had about 12 clubs competing on a level playing field.”

“Today that is not the case. If you take limited overs cricket as an example, the limited edition is to cricket what sevens is to rugby. Now you have the Indian Premier League which is auctioning players. This is like the slave trade 100 years ago.”

He pointed out that, “everybody knows that Sri Lanka has a far better chance of making a mark in the international scene in the sevens circuit, obviously because we are smaller in stature in comparison to most international teams. But to do that several things have to happen. There is no point in moaning after the tournament that the players did not have adequate time to prepare. That is the perennial excuse after each failure. Irrespective of whether we are going to be invited or not, the authorities must expose the players in foreign tournaments. And I am not talking about the World Sevens circuit. If you take Fiji for example, they have a sevens tournament practically every week. Then there is the Malaysian Cobra Tens. And without taking anything away from the Singer International Sevens, some of the major Asian countries send their development team for the exposure. Just like in cricket, one has to be match fit. Also in rugby one has to make a decision in a split second. That is where playing in smaller tournaments prior to a World Sevens circuit tournament can be beneficial. The players develop an understanding and learn to perform well under pressure. This cannot be simulated at practices.”

Explaining further Benedict said, “The composition of the team also has to be right. Ideally you need at least three mobile forwards. The point here is turn over ball. It is in a forward’s head to ruck and maul. I am not saying a three quarter cannot do it. But a forward is more used to it and it is in his psyche. And ball retention is everything in sevens rugby.”

When asked about the vast experience needed to compete, Benedict dismissed the myth saying, “experience comes into play only when the game is tight. I personally believe if you are over 30- years-old you should not be playing sevens rugby unless you are super fit. You cannot compare a Sri Lankan to a Fijian because Fijians have rugby for breakfast lunch and dinner. And of course there are two exceptions that come to mind. Eric Rush and David Campese were extremely fit and played well in to their thirties. Overall if a player has both the skills and technique he should be selected to play. One without the other is useless. You also have to keep in mind that players who are reaching the end of the careers would be more circumspect especially with the league season coming up. Young players are eager to impress and cement their place. They wouldn’t worry about missing a few matches.”

So what is the remedy? To which Benedict replies, “Hidden agenda’s and personal glory have no place in rugby. When the selectors pick a squad, they must take in to consideration what the local management has to say. I will not criticise the input from a foreign coach. But the selectors have to understand that the foreigner has spent a very limited period of time with the team. On the contrary the management knows every player inside out. Discipline, attending practices on time, fitness reports all have to be carefully studied before a side is selected. And as I stated earlier foreign exposure for the team before a major tournament is an absolute must so that each member knows what the other would be doing in any given match situation.”

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